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David Ashforth: A lively Cheltenham Festival preview at Towcester

The panel comprising (from left to right) Andrew Mount, Mark Winstanley, Robert Cooper, Matt Chapman and Kieran Packman kept an enthusiastic audience entertained with a diverse mix of wit and wisdom
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First published on January 8, 2011 


It's lucky the Empress Elizabeth of Austria isn't in the building named after her at Towcester racecourse. It would be a terrible shock to find Mark 'The Couch' Winstanley there.

What the panel lacks in trainers and jockeys (all of them), it more than makes up for in an entertaining mixture of contrary opinions, considerable knowledge and, in Winstanley's case, an enormous number of words beginning with the letter 'f', all of them the same.

Winstanley, a Racing Post tipster, also supplies a string of tasteless but often funny jokes, involving, among other curiosities, a Bangkok brothel and a taxi to Bridgend. Reconstructing him may beyond society's powers.

Apart from Winstanley, there's Totesport's racecourse bookmaker Gary Wiltshire, large, genial and in charge of the telephone; Kieran Packman, tall, slim, young and really into it, from Timeform; At The Races presenter Matt Chapman, full-on; Andrew Mount, full of statistics, representing sponsors GG.com; and, as chairman, broadcaster 'Sir' Robert Cooper, laconic and unflappable.

It's hard to imagine Cooper getting cross but, if he does, he's got one of those bells they have on counters to attract the staff's attention. It doesn't work very well, and isn't nearly as loud as the panellists.

Consensus doesn't make a surprise appearance for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which has established itself as the question to which no-one knows the answer. While Mount fancies Cork All Star, Chapman opines that Cork All Star has "done nothing right. He'll whack every hurdle".

Amazingly, Winstanley doesn't have an opinion.

He has a characteristically strong one in the Arkle, though. "Noland is a certainty," he says. "He jumped like Desert Orchid at Sandown, and this is the worst Arkle I can remember." Chapman agrees: "Noland's the class act. The rest are rubbish. It's an awful race and should be run at Catterick."

Mount defends Tidal Bay but rather undermines confidence by observing: "He's going to make a rick or two, but he hasn't fallen." It's an omission Packman thinks will be rectified.

There are several diversionary discussions along the way, including the terrifying nature of trainer John Carr's six-year-old son Eddie, as witnessed by Cooper and others during visits to Sublimity's yard, and the question of which jockey is better, Ruby Walsh (Winstanley) or Sam Thomas (Chapman).

Packman is adamant Sublimity isn't good enough to win another Champion Hurdle. "Last year's was one of the worst ever," says Packman, "and Sublimity's best won't be good enough. It's Sizing Europe or Osana. They are on the upgrade."

Inevitably, Sizing Europe's jumping habits are discussed and, in some quarters, found wanting. "Well," says Winstanley, "I'd rather see him jump too big than lie on his arse looking at the stars."

Wiltshire is busy phoning contacts. At 8.10pm, an anonymous Irish expert tells us Clopf may not get up the hill in the Arkle, Mossbank has no chance in the Ryanair if the going is soft, and that the cross-country chase will be won by either Wonderkid or Garde Champetre. Winstanley then makes uncomplimentary remarks about the riding ability of Marcus Foley and Joe Tizzard, and complimentary ones about the racing ability of Group Captain, his selection for the Ballymore Hurdle. "He's battle hardened, while Aigle D'Or isn't," says Winstanley, "and Alan King gets his horses spot-on for the festival."

Packman agrees, but also likes County Zen. According to Packman: "He's been ignored because his form is in handicaps. His third in the Totesport Trophy represents about the best form in the race, and the step up in trip will suit him."

One round follows another, with Winstanley and Chapman opinionated and argumentative, and Packman and Mount – well, they're quite opinionated and argumentative, too.

Winstanley thinks the Royal & SunAlliance Chase is the worst he's seen, which may explain why, according to Mount, Willie Mullins seems to have concluded that Pomme Tiepy, a five-year-old mare, has a decent chance of winning it.

The Champion Chase is better than last year, when, according to Packman, "Voy Por Ustedes' win was worth nothing". While some (Winstanley) think Master Minded is "an absolute certainty", others (Chapman) expect Twist Magic to win, or Voy Por Ustedes (Mount), or possibly Tamarinbleu (Packman). I hope that helps. At 9.22pm, after the interval, Wiltshire makes contact with Harry Findlay, who is at Paul Barber's house after having "done my bollocks at Wincanton".

Findlay, who owns Denman with Barber, talks more about Kauto Star. "What people forget about Kauto," he says, "is that he's guaranteed to improve from last year. He's never looked better, although I still think, especially with rain and our tactics, we can beat him. Either Denman will win, or I'll see the best chaser I've ever seen."

Spurred on by Chapman, Wiltshire asks: "Harry, if you had the last of your money on, who would you trust with your life, Sam Thomas or Ruby Walsh?" Findlay replies: "If my life depended on it? Tony McCoy."

However much Findlay stands to win if Denman does, it's probably less than bookmaker Freddie Williams, a famously big layer at the festival, stands to lose if Big Eared Fran wins the bumper.

Williams, phoned by Wiltshire, reveals he's laid David Pipe's horse at 14-1, to lose £900,000.

Another phone call, this time to John Timmons, the owner of Backbord, reveals that he probably won't run in the Pertemps Final if the going turns soft. The panel haven't run out of words, but I have. It was good fun.


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One round follows another, with Winstanley and Chapman opinionated and argumentative
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